K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Using the internet, Smithsonian Folkways, or text book recordings, students will listen to freedom songs recorded during the civil rights movement, 1960–1965. Original recordings are particularly recommended to capture the emotion and the importance of this time in history. Students will write about personal reactions to the music and lyrics. Through reading and pictures, students will briefly explore historical events where these songs were sung. Listening again, students will analyze and describe — musically — particular song(s). Students will sing along with a music textbook version, clapping the backbeat, or using rhythm instruments. Further extensions are suggested.

Learning outcomes

Students will

  • Recount the use of freedom songs at 1 to 3 key historical events
  • Sing a freedom song and recall key elements of African American singing: solo/group, call and response, back beat, improvisation, and syncopation

Teacher planning

Classroom time required

2 or 3 40–50 minute classes


While textbooks may have freedom songs, the recordings may not be from the Civil Rights time period. Please use authentic recordings so that students have the opportunity to hear the emotion of the times.


  1. Prepare students. Because most freedom songs are adaptations of African American spirituals sung during slavery, students should have prior experience with hearing or singing them and recall that they often had hidden messages. If not, consider doing a lesson on spirituals before these on civil rights, or simply have students brainstorm what they do know and fill in where needed. Common spirituals in textbooks:
    • “This Little Light of Mine”
    • “He’s Got the Whole World”
    • “Go Tell it on the Mountain”
    • “Michael Row the Boat”
    • “New River Train”
    • “Go Down Moses”
    • “Good News”
  2. Check with Social Studies teacher to see what students have already studied.
  3. Become familiar with civil rights history and websites. Several are suggested in the sidebar of this page. More can be found in Best of the Web.
  4. Determine which websites, sound recordings, and textbooks will be used.
  5. Choose historical events and freedom songs.
  6. Prepare summaries using website research for reference.
  7. Prepare media in advance.


This lesson will cover the Greensboro Sit-ins, the March to Washington, and the March to Selma. The accompanying songs are “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “Oh Freedom,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

If you choose the same, you can have the lesson pulled up on the computer and activate links while teaching.

Anticipatory set

  1. Review: Lead a class discussion about the Civil Rights Movement. Be sure to include what the fight for civil rights was about, Jim Crow laws, a few key people, and the time period (1960–1965).

Focus/New Material

Greensboro Sit-ins, 1960/“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”

  1. Tell students: “Today we’re going to listen to some freedom songs of the civil rights movement. Does anyone know what happened in Greensboro, North Carolina at Woolworth’s lunch counter?”
  2. Provide summary of Greensboro Sit-ins.
  3. Look at this picture of the Greensboro Four at the lunch counter at the F.W. Woolworth Building in Greensboro, North Carolina.
  4. Prepare students to listen to “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” Note pictures on slide show are from Washington March and not necessary to use but could be a lead in for next section. May use overhead copy of lyrics to help students follow.
  5. Show and read through Listening Reflections Guide on overhead, board, or worksheet.
  6. Students listen and take notes on “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” on History Now’s jukebox.
  7. Listen to students’ reflections and complete a Listening Reflections Guide together. They may need to hear the recording several times. The final time you play the recording, students should pay particular attention to slide show of pictures. These are pictures of next event to be covered.
  8. Remember to review characteristics of African American singing: solo/group, call/response, back beat emphasis, improvising, and syncopated rhythms.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August, 1963/“Oh Freedom”

This version of “Oh Freedom” was recorded in November, 1963, at a voter registration rally in Jackson, Mississippi.

  1. Recall pictures and review students’ knowledge of the March on Washington.
  2. Provide summary of March on Washington.
  3. Listen to another freedom song, called “Oh Freedom,” on the jukebox at History Now and watch pictures in accompanying slide show (still shots at Lincoln Memorial).
  4. Hand out a Listening Reflections Guide for students to do independently.
  5. Check student progress, listen again if necessary.
  6. Depending on time, students can reflect with a partner, share ideas in full class, or just turn the completed guide in for later checking by teacher.
  7. Pass out Making Music by Silver Burdett, 2002, 5th grade books, page 380. Listen to “Oh Freedom” in recordings from textbook: CD 15-15.
  8. Explain that this recording was made by the Boys Choir of Harlem and a female soloist.
  9. While listening, have students pay particular attention to voices and how the music is arranged. See the details in Silver Burdett’s lesson.
  10. While listening, students should follow the music or lyrics in book and join in quietly by tapping a back beat or humming along.
  11. Ask students to consider how the lyrics are different, compare with the lyric overhead sheet from the internet recording, and explain how spirituals were changed into freedom songs.
  12. Play again and have students sing out, especially on group responses, and add clapping or sticks on back beat.
  13. While looking at the music, have students determine range of melody, identify syncopations in rhythm, and chord markings for harmony.
  14. Possible break point — or launching of extensions for now or another day
  15. Listen to singer, Odetta, performing “Oh Freedom” and “Come and Go with Me to that Land” in recordings from textbook: CD 15–17, Making Music by Silver Burdett, 2002, 5th grade books, page 382. (She is in slide show pictures at the Washington March during the jukebox song, “I’m on My Way.” Open, but stop sound.)
  16. Depending on time or desires, continue following Silver Burdett plan and play chords.
  17. Sing another freedom song, often referred to as the African American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in Silver Burdett, 5th grade, pg.466.

March from Selma to Montgomery for Voting Rights, March 7, 9, and 14, 1965/“We Shall Not Be Moved”

  1. Review students’ knowledge of Selma March.
  2. Provide summary of the March from Selma to Montgomery.
  3. Look at the Marching for Freedom pictures.
  4. Hand out a Listening Reflections Guide for students to do independently, while listening to “We Shall Not Be Moved,” on the jukebox.
  5. Check student progress, listen again if necessary.
  6. Remember to review characteristics of African American singing: on solo/group, call/response, back beat emphasis, and improvising.
  7. Depending on time, students can reflect with a partner, share ideas in full class, or turn the guide in for later evaluation by teacher.
  8. Pass out Making Music by Silver Burdett, 2002, 4th grade books, page 420.
  9. Listen to “We Shall Not Be Moved” in recordings from textbook: CD 16-9.
  10. While listening, have students follow music or lyrics in book and join in quietly tapping back beat or humming along.
  11. Students should listen for similarities and differences and briefly state these at end.
  12. Play song again. Students should sing out, especially on group responses, and add clapping or sticks on back beat.
  13. Possible break point — or launching of extensions for now or another day
  14. Compare and contrast the online recording to Silver Burdett recording. You may use another Reflections Guide to gather information.
  15. The Silver Burdett lesson focuses on note reading and playing parts of the melody. You may wish to incorporate this with a recorder, Orff instruments, or keyboards.
  16. Sing world renowned freedom song, “We Shall Overcome,” Silver Burdett, 4th grade, pg.312.


  1. Evaluate independent work on 1 or 2 Listening Reflections Guides.
  2. Observe students singing and playing back beat.
  3. Teacher could create review to test learning of history and music concepts.

Supplemental information

History vocabulary

  • Jim Crow Laws
  • bus boycott
  • voting rights
  • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
  • Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

A history timeline of the Civil Rights Movement.

Music vocabulary

Elements of music (the basic building blocks)

The patterns of sounds and silences measured by the beat.
Patterns of pitches. The length of each pitch is determined by the note it gets in the rhythm.
Tone colors
The sounds of voices and instruments and how they blend.
Volume levels and how they change.
How the melodies or rhythms are mixed or layered.
The plan of the music and how the musical ideas are organized.
The feeling that the music expresses or the feeling it creates in the listener.
The words of a song.

Analyzing the musical elements to determine the style of the music

A way of dressing, a way of drawing, a way of making music. Each style of music has its own group of characteristics and way of handling the elements. Examples of what to look and listen for:

  1. Rhythm: fast, slow, repeated
  2. Melody: shape, range (highest and lowest notes), steps, skips
  3. Tone colors: what voices, what instruments, how played-(plucked, strummed,etc.)
soft (piano- ), loud (forte- f ), gradually louder or softer
monophonic (melody alone), polyphonic (2 or more melodies or rhythms layered on top of each other), homophonic(melody with chord based accompaniment
repeated sections, theme and variations, AAB, ABACA
majestic, humorous, relaxed, sad, happy, etc.
Does it have any? Do they tell a story? Are they nonsense-like or poetic?

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Music Education (2010)
      • Grade 5

        • 5.CR.1 Understand global, interdisciplinary, and 21st century connections with music. 5.CR.1.1 Understand how music has affected, and is reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of the United States. 5.CR.1.2 Understand the relationships between...
      • Social Studies (2010)
        • 5.C.1 Understand how increased diversity resulted from migration, settlement patterns and economic development in the United States. 5.C.1.1 Analyze the change in leadership, cultures and everyday life of American Indian groups before and after European exploration....
        • 5.H.1 Analyze the chronology of key events in the United States. 5.H.1.1 Evaluate the relationships between European explorers (French, Spanish and English) and American Indian groups, based on accuracy of historical information (beliefs, fears and leadership)....

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Music Education (2001)

Grade 5

  • Goal 6: The learner will listen to, analyze, and describe music.
    • Objective 6.02: Demonstrate perceptual skills by conducting, moving to, answering questions about, and describing aural examples of varied musical styles and cultures.
    • Objective 6.07: Show respect while listening to and analyzing music.
  • Goal 9: The learner will understand music in relation to history and culture.
    • Objective 9.01: Identify the style of aural musical examples from various historical periods and cultures.
    • Objective 9.04: Identify and describe roles of musicians in various musical settings and cultures.
    • Objective 9.05: Show respect for music from various cultures and historical periods.

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 5

  • Goal 3: The learner will examine the roles various ethnic groups have played in the development of the United States and its neighboring countries.
    • Objective 3.01: Locate and describe people of diverse ethnic and religious cultures, past and present, in the United States.
    • Objective 3.03: Identify examples of cultural interaction within and among the regions of the United States.
  • Goal 4: The learner will trace key developments in United States history and describe their impact on the land and people of the nation and its neighboring countries.
    • Objective 4.03: Describe the contributions of people of diverse cultures throughout the history of the United States.
    • Objective 4.06: Evaluate the effectiveness of civil rights and social movements throughout United States history that reflect the struggle for equality and constitutional rights for all citizens.